WINONA — The question is whether a $21,000 donation is a gift or a potential pitfall.

Meredith Mihm, an adjunct professor at Saint Mary’s University, told the board she has led an effort to raise $20,956 (the total now sits over $21,320) for the “purpose of reinstating the fourth-grade orchestra.”

Orchestra class for fourth-graders was cut as part of a $2.25 million budget reduction approved in April and incorporated into the 2019-2020 budget approved in June. Instead, orchestra would begin in fifth grade, based on the budget passed.

“This is what your constituents want,” Mihm said, adding that there were, at the time she spoke, 442 individual donations made through the crowd-funding website GoFundMe, with all but a few of those donations being less than $300.

The goal, Mihm said, was to raise the money to fund a 0.3 FTE for the instructor for fourth-grade orchestra. Part of the cost figured into the position originally was the travel time between schools, but that amount would be less, Mihm said, because of the closing of Rollingstone Elementary.

Mihm also pointed to studies that show how music education benefits student scores in math and science and helps them set and achieve goals.

"We’d need to go back and see how it’s going to impact our budget," Superintendent Annette Freiheit said.

Freiheit said the actual money needed to pay for the position for one year could vary, depending on the number of students who sign up for fourth-grade orchestra, but that $21,000 was in the ballpark of what would be needed. 

The bigger issue, she said, was finding a way to pay for it after the upcoming school year. Freiheit said crowd-funding wasn't a realistic option for an ongoing funding source for a program. 

Board Member Karl Sonneman, who has long disagreed with cutting programs, said he would like to move forward with the donation at the next board meeting if district staff can answer some basic questions about how the money is to be applied and whether the donation will impact the rest of the district budget negatively. 

While each of the school board members thanked Mihm for her efforts to raise money, not everyone wanted to put fourth-grade orchestra back in the classroom.

Board Member Jim Schul asked Mihm if her group would be willing to make the donation to start fourth-grade orchestra as an extra-curricular activity. That activity, he said, could also take kids to music performances as well as teach them how to use instruments and play together.

Board Member Steve Schild said if an extra-curricular activity was started, the district would need to make sure it did not exclude students who might have transportation issues or be unable to pay a fee to join. 

"My vision is it’s totally free," Schul said. "It's not like traveling soccer teams."

Giving an impassioned appeal to her fellow board members to vote to accept the funds and reinstate fourth-grade orchestra in the classroom, Board Member Allison Quam said the best way to make the program fair would be to make it available to all students during the school day.

"Retaining students is done by retaining music and art," she said. "I don’t know what I can do to get the four of you who voted for (cutting fourth-grade orchestra) to reverse your decision. We need to start now."

Like Freiheit, Schild said he was concerned about sustaining the program in the budget.

"I think that there are questions we need to look into if we’re going to be responsible," Schild said. "I have not taken cavalierly the votes I’ve given. This would be a disservice on what we’re here to do."

Board Chairwoman Nancy Denzer said cutting more than $2 million from the budget in April for the upcoming school year is a task she does not want to repeat, so she wants to make sure items in the budget can be paid for in the long term. 

"I'm extremely concerned about accepting a donation that’s tied to a staffing position we can’t guarantee is there," she said. "There are many other things that were also reduced. (Physical education) at the ALC, cuts to math, cuts to science. I feel an obligation to them as well."

Schul added that the budget cuts were painful, but like Freiheit, he's concerned about other programs that faced cuts in the budget.

"I don’t want turf wars," he said. "Each discipline is important."

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Regional Reporter

Brian Todd is a 1997 graduate of Nebraska-Omaha. He covers Goodhue, Wabasha, Winona and Houston counties and writes a weekly column about the life of a reporter.